Notre Dame Cathedral in Flames

On Monday afternoon in Paris, the great spire of Notre Dame Cathedral collapsed. The roof of this iconic site for Christian pilgrimage is in flames–putting all of its spiritual and cultural history in jeopardy. Will its rose window, made of centuries-old glass, survive the heat? Will a country which so strongly affirms separation of church and state be able to garner funds to make any repairs to this world treasure–should the treasure even exist at the end of the night? Is it even right to spend millions–or billions–on resuscitating a ravaged building when refugees are dying–also in the millions?

We’ve entered Holy Week with stark news before. May we all pray for the city of Paris–for France, and for the Church throughout the world.


  1. Will a country which so strongly affirms separation of church and state be able to garner funds to make any repairs to this world treasure…?

    As far as I understand it, the French state owns Notre-Dame, so one would hope that, given its restoration should be a matter of national and cultural pride, the answer would be an unequivocal yes.

    Is it even right to spend millions–or billions–on resuscitating a ravaged building when refugees are dying–also in the millions?

    With all due respect, asking a John 12:5 style question so soon after the blaze, let alone in this particular week of the Church’s calendar, strikes me as tasteless to say the least.

    Rather than speculative questions, I think we would be better counselled to say (at a minumum!) an Ave for the clergy and people of Paris, and intercede for the firefighter who has, at the time of writing, been seriously injured battling to save this monument of Catholic culture and theology. Kyrie, eleison.

    1. Correct, and I agree. The French state owns the cathedrals built before 1905. I am already seeing others turning this event into agenda-pushing for their respective agendas from other points in the spectrum. That kind of thing boomerangs.

      It appears the essential purpose of the development of the Gothic stone vault may have been once again validated: to be strong enough to withstand frequent roof fires. (The vault appears to have been pierced by the collapsing fleche, however.) Obviously, wooden vaults would not, and Romanesque vaults were not as strong and thus also more vulnerable to collapse if other parts of the structure were compromised.

      So far, no loss of life, the Blessed Sacrament was saved, as were the key relics and movable antiquities. Obviously leading in stained glass and organ and bells would be vulnerable to melting in furnace-level heat.

      Another historical perspective: an even older and more venerable church burned down in 1823. The major basilica of S Paolo fuori le mura in Rome:

      It was rebuilt.

      1. I had an unorganized thought last night about the issue of spending money on reconstruction that with the morning has become more organized to express. The rose windows of the cathedral appear to have been injured, yet saved.


        “Give us bread, but give us roses.”

        The immortal cry associated with the striking mill workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts in the famous “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912 that played a key part in the history of the American and world labor movement. The needy are not only in need of bread – but beauty – for, as Dostoevsky wrote, beauty will save the world. Ultimately, that redeeming beauty is of the Incarnate Love of God, whose Passion, Death and Resurrection we re-present this week.

    2. Yes, absolutely right and well said. It is insensitive and cruel to the Citizens of France to suggest anything otherwise.


  2. While horrific, this disaster has also managed to bring people together. Striking was the discussion on a French media outlet with a Jewish art historian who cited the depiction of the 28 kings of Israel and his friendship with the archbishop who, as I understand it, is a convert from Judaism.

    Great disaster often brings great opportunity. And all the better if the bonds of our common humanity are strengthened by shared lament, work, and eventually, celebration.

    1. Were there not only 23 kings of Israel (four of a united Israel and Judah) and 19 of Israel alone?

    2. Cardinal Lustiger, sometime arch-bishop of Paris was a convert to Christianity at age 13. He reposed in 2007.

  3. It is as right to rebuild the cathedral as it was to build it in the first place. And the great outpouring of emotion shows how right the decision to build the cathedral was.

  4. Shawn Tribe’s comments (via FB) are worthwhile:

    “Some will, of course, take the approach to today’s tragic events that Notre Dame is only a building, and while that is certainly true in one sense, it is also woefully in adequate as a response. It must be remembered in the first instance that Notre Dame is a symbol — and symbols matter.

    “Second, it was formed and built by the faithful as a form of Divine offering in its own right, formed as it was by the source and summit of the faith: the sacred liturgy. This, too, should not be forgotten.

    “Finally, we know that beauty matters, and with so much ugliness rampant in the world, oases of beauty such as Notre Dame de Paris and their power to move one should not be turned into any trifling matter.

    “Let us be reminded of the words of Dom Gerard Calvet, OSB, who specifically used Notre Dame de Paris in his moving reflection around the importance and attractive power of beauty — and may I encourage any and all to avoid the temptation of a kind of quasi-iconoclasm in addressing this matter. Catholicism is a religion of the Incarnation and as such it understands the importance of -both- the interior and exterior dimensions of the Faith.

    “With that in mind, Dom Gerard:

    “…one enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow door… is that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty. Henri Charlier said, in the same vein, “It is necessary to lose the illusion that truth can communicate itself fruitfully without that splendour that is of one nature with it and which is called beauty.” (L’Art et la Pensee).

  5. We should hold in our thoughts the large community of people attached to and employed by Notre Dame, from the archbishop to the cleaners and the regular worshippers.
    This will be a very difficult Triduum for them with their home so badly damaged.

  6. I’m relieved to hear this morning that the French government has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame–though the challenge will be finding people skilled enough to render it. And, some $450 million (in US dollars) has been pledged by prominent French businesses.

    1. My wife brought up the possibility of hiring refugees and training them to work on the rebuilding of Notre Dame. Who knows, they may not be so separated from those who put up the original cathedral with respect to skills and work ethic.

      The example of Coventry Cathedral may also offer ideas to the French officials.

      1. “The example of Coventry Cathedral may also offer ideas to the French officials.”

        Only if someone wants to see barricades erected in the streets of Paris again…. As things stand, the walls and most of the vault so far are holding up (though it will obviously take time and expertise to determine the extent to which the hottest parts of the surviving structure were compromised by the water). So my comment is not a condemnation of Coventry, but an explanation that the situations are considerably different. Coventry was bombed. Medieval cathedrals were designed to survive roof fires – lightning, folks – but not bombs.

  7. I am all for beautify, ancient gothic cathedrals. I am also don’t mind spending a lot of money of them. The Catholic World and France can afford to rebuild Notre Dame and to help refugees. The budget could be trimmed in other places both governments and the laity. Government and lay vices account for large parts of the budget. The U.S. could shave a tiny slice off the nuclear budget and donate to rebuild the cathedral if we were filling generous. But I am not sure that Notre Dame should be rebuilt.

    The Church in France is shrinking. She will still be life giving and bring hope to many people by the Gospel of Christ, but the Church is becoming smaller and France is filled with empty churches. It seems kind of pointless to take on such a project when there is so much difficulty keeping the remaining churches opened. Surely there is another church in the city of Paris that could become the new seat of the Bishop. The Church of Saint-Sulpice, perhaps?

    1. S Sulpice was itself subject to fire four weeks ago:

      The cathedral is a property of the French state, not the local church (only cathedrals built after 1905 are owned by the local church). So the consideration of the size of the local faithful will not likely be considered in the face of what is considered a national monument and treasure, any more than the lack of Greek pagans would factor into the Greek state’s preservation work on the Acropolis of Athens.

    2. Devin,

      This isn’t just the cathedral of Paris, it’s a national, probably international, icon. In France, all distances are measured by their relationship to Notre-Dame, Point Zero. It’s the most visited monument in France. As a symbolic presence, it is needed by all of us, and President Macron’s vow to rebuild it is well-founded. The fact that the whole world watched in horror, on live TV, and that so much has already been said across the globe in reactions to this fire, speaks volumes.

      I was taken by the fact that so many people were able to sing together the Je vous salue, Marie [Hail Mary] setting. Singing in the streets like that, in the face of disaster, is a very tribal phenomenon. We are going to sing the same setting to begin our Triduum choir rehearsal this evening.

      1. And it was heartening to see on TV that so many of the people praying and processing were young. It’s not true to say that the Church in France is falling apart, we should be glad of the new green shoots. People in the UK and the US should not be too ready to note the decline in France, something about those who live in glass houses!


    3. The Church in France is shrinking? The institution is to blame: siding with the rich and powerful for two centuries, at least. Turning a deaf ear to Francis de Sales and other active and effective disciples. Losing track of the mission of Christ. The mission is always available to be shouldered. The harvest hasn’t disappeared, some of us just lost track of where to find the field. If Notre Dame is built as a field hospital, all the better. If as a repository for gold and jewels for the sake of history or tourism, we will have missed another opportunity.

      1. Paul, that comment is perfectly put. Thank-you!

        Todd, that is about as helpful and accurate as the traditionalists who say that Vatican II is all to blame. The immense network of charitable works created, mainly by religious women, during the nineteenth century, and the concomitant missionary drive gives the lie to that idea. It is a complex question that can’t be dealt with in an internet combox. A much more helpful route is to ask questions about the Church’s difficult and complex relationship with modernity, beginning with the Reformation. And a helpful starting point (but in French) is “Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien. Anatomie d’un effondrement” by Guillaume Cuchet, professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. The blurb makes it look like he’s part of the blame Vatican II rent-a-chorus, but in fact his analysis is much deeper.

    1. If allowed by the city & fire department, I’d think it would be good for the city/church for some Easter Sunday morning Masses to be in the plaza in front of the cathedral (Place Jean-Paul II).

    2. As you know, Rita, the Chrism Mass is at Saint Sulpice today. It appears that the Triduum will also be there. The Mass of Easter Sunday will be at your favorite, Saint Eustace. In the coming weeks Archbishop Aupetit will designate a pro-cathedral. A sad decision.

  8. Here’s the first aerial shot I can find of the stone vaults largely having done their (initial) work. The extent to which heat and water may have compromised the stonework remains to be determined, of course. But 21st century firefighters and 12th/13th century engineers and laborers did their jobs.

    1. Those magnificent firefighters who reportedly risked their lives to save the towers from destruction deserve the Legion of Honour!

  9. Last evening, after peering in disbelief at the images of Notre Dame in flame, something very touching occurred. While getting ready for the evening’s Alpha session a man I had never met approached and asked if I was the priest. Responding affirmatively I thought that perhaps he was about to make a request for material assistance. He identified himself as one whose family had been helped by our food pantry on numerous occasions for which he was very grateful. Then he told me that in the wake of his seeing those same flames he felt he had to come to the church to express his sadness and his solidarity with Catholics here and everywhere pointing out that “there is only one Jesus” to whom every knee must bend. Then he was gone. Could he have been the Risen One dropping by to assure us that he is still the Lord even in the midst of flames?

    1. The damage from their own small fire a month ago must’ve been limited. Hopefully they won’t have to substitute for long.

    2. As will the other celebrations, except for the Easter Sunday Mass presided by the archbishop, which will be at S.-Eustache (the Oratorians’ – that’s the Oratoire de Jésus, founded by Bérulle, not the Oratory of St. Philip) church, beside Les Halles.

    3. The homily of Archbishop Michel Aupetit at today’s Chrism Mass at Saint-Sulpice. A wonderful interweaving of the images of anointing with rebuilding and resurrection. The translation is mine, assisted by Google.

      Our dear cathedral is on its knees. We know that it is more than a pile of stones. The reactions of the whole world show it. For what is the difference between a pile of stones and a cathedral? It is the same difference as between a cluster of cells and a human person. A pile of stones and a pile of cells are just a shapeless pile. In a cathedral or a human person, there is a principle of organization, a principle of unity, a creative intelligence. The other thing that unites a cathedral and a human person is the anointing they receive that manifests a transcendence, a divine presence that confers on them a sacredness.

      Our cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was anointed. Indeed during its consecration, the altar was anointed, coated with Sacred Chrism. The altar is a sign of the mysterious presence of God, like the one Jacob built after his vision of the angels ascending and descending from heaven. He called this place Bethel, which means the house of God. The altar, indeed, represents the presence of God. The anointing we give the altar signifies the presence of Christ. That is why priests venerate the altar by kissing it, because it is on it that the Holy Sacrifice is made present at each mass, the sacrifice that saves humanity by the gift of love that Christ gave once for all on the cross. This is the Easter journey that we celebrate at each Eucharist: the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

      The crosses of its walls were also anointed with this sacred oil, this oil that we are here to consecrate. This cathedral is inhabited by a people. But it is not only inhabited by those who pray or visit. She is the vessel of a presence. She is the house of God and that is why she is the home of all.

      (continued below)

      1. But above all we know that our Church is the living stones that have been anointed. This faithful people who, too, know that they are the vessel of a presence. Saint Paul reminds us of that when he says to Christians: “You are the Temple of God”.

        We will rebuild the cathedral. The outpouring of emotion around the world, the extraordinary outpouring of generosity that followed the fire that partially destroyed it, allow us to imagine its restoration, during these days of Easter we could speak of a kind of resurrection. But we must also restore the Church. May all the baptized, who have received the anointing of Christ as priest, prophet and king, rediscover the fervor of their beginning, relive the extraordinary grace they once received by becoming children of God. It is also necessary that the anointing they received at Confirmation manifest the full gift of the Holy Spirit which is the very expression of the love of God. She must fill us with joy so that we build around us a civilization of love.

        May the priests, whose hands that touch the body and blood of the Lord have been marked by a sacred anointing, rediscover the deeper meaning of that following of Christ to whom they gave their lives that, like him, they come to serve and not to be served. That the only power they ever possess may be the very power of Christ who gives his life for those he loves. I know, my brother priests, that this is what you already live and that this is what makes you happy. And you, brother deacons, always remind us by your life and the gift of yourselves in service that we are all humble servants, most of all those who have the mission to guide by being configured to Christ the Good Shepherd, that is, we bishops. And you too, dear consecrated religious, be the prophets of the world to come.


      2. Together, brothers and sisters, with the gift of the Holy Spirit who comes to us from the Father through the Son, we will rebuild our Church. Let us also entrust ourselves to Our Lady who is still standing, at the foot of the Cross, where her son entrusted her to us and entrusted us to her, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most beautiful: Yes, Our Lady of Paris, pray for us.

        + Michel Aupetit
        Archbishop of Paris

  10. A friend posted this to Facebook. A short sung prayer written for tonight’s choral evensong at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin (Anglican.)

    Our Lady of Paris,
    We weep for you,
    As you wept for your Son on the cross,
    Our Savior, Jesus Christ.
    Ora pro nobis.

  11. Here is a really interesting piece which shows some of the structural issues facing Notre Dame in more detail:

    I was also impressed by this note within the piece linked above, explaining how care for Notre Dame’s Cathedral has inspired care for other churches, as well:

    “In St. Landry Parish, La., three black churches burned down from arson within 10 days in late March and early April. Before Monday, a GoFundMe for the churches had raised just below $50,000 in rebuilding aid. After a Twitter campaign urged people to remember the Louisiana churches amidst the devastation of Notre Dame, the total skyrocketed to $1 million by Wednesday.”

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